Garden & Landscape Tips

Just like some first dates, that alluring plant on the garden center bench might not always turn out to be as sterling as the first impression indicated. Some plants shine early in spring and wow gardeners at plant shopping time. Others are slow starters, are puny in pots, or just come into their own once they have a chance to spread their wings (and roots) in open ground.

Performance varies from place to place, but here are 10 plants that often turn out to be showier in pots than in the garden, followed by 10 “botanical swans” that usually improve and flourish as the season progresses:

Better in pots:

Azaleas have the good sense to bloom when most people are plant shopping, but they're prone to lace bugs and not very fond of poorly drained clay soil.
© George Weigel

1. Pansies/violas (Viola spp.) These are grown in greenhouses as cool-season annuals in most of the country. Available in a myriad of vibrant colors, growers nurture them to bloom abundantly in 4- and 6-packs. Unfortunately when warm, summer weather arrives a few weeks later in all but the coolest parts of the country, bloom decreases. Plant them for color in cooler months only; in the South, enjoy them as winter annuals.

Another woe: rabbits love them.

2. Forsythia (Forsythia spp.) One of the earliest shrubs to bloom at winter’s end, this cheery yellow bloomer sells itself to color-starved early-spring shoppers. The flowers are short-lived though, leaving behind an often-gangly shrub with lack-luster foliage and no fall color or berries. Forsythia demands annual pruning after bloom to control size and habit, especially when used in foundation plantings or too-small spaces.

Mountain laurel
Mountain laurel usually looks gorgeous in bloom in spring in a pot but often looks like this after a few years in a home garden.
© George Weigel

3. Azaleas (Rhododendron spp.) Azaleas have the good marketing sense to hit peak bloom at the height of the plant shopping season in spring. In nursery pots, most display gorgeous eye-catching balls of color. Way too many of them soon croak however, as a result of planting in lousy soil, excess sun, and summer drought. Countless become infested with lace-bugs.

4. Mountain laurel (Kalmia spp.) Here’s another spring-flowering shrub (a native woodland, broadleaf evergreen) that looks great in April/May with shiny leaves and pretty pinkish white flowers. Unfortunately, it’s picky about growing conditions, preferring the cool humus of undisturbed woods. It will not tolerate sunbaked-clay back yards where they often end up. Too many are dead in 2 to 3 years... or looking like they'd be better off if they were.

5. Impatiens (Impatiens walleriana ) Until about five years ago, impatiens were America’s best-selling annual, color queens for shade. Then fast-spreading downy mildew disease began killing plants midway through the season in much of the United States. This disease overwinters in all but our most frigid climates, so it’s likely a problem that’s here to stay. Look instead for New Guinea impatiens or the new mildew-resistant hybrid types.

Impatiens with downy mildew
Impatiens used to be easy to grow – until a new disease called downy mildew came along.
© George Weigel

6. Astilbe (Astilbe spp.) In regularly watered nursery pots these perennials are striking in summer with their showy fluffy pink, red, rose, or white flower spikes. They thrive in damp soil, away from moisture sucking tree roots and shaded from hot afternoon sun. Way too many however, are planted where they fry by August.

7. Lady’s mantle The wide, softly hairy leaves and delicate sprays of chartreuse spring flowers of this perennial are often overlooked at buying time. It’s another perennial that prefers cooler regions and doesn't take kindly to intense summer heat and drought. Provide moisture-retaining soil and an organic, summer mulch.

8. Heaths and heathers (Erica spp. and Calluna spp.) These small cutesy shrub relatives are enticing in fall through early spring with their dainty pinkish to lavender flowers. They prefer well-drained, sandy soil that is acid. Poorly drained “builder’s soil” combined with summer heat and humidity quickly cause plants to decline.

9. Bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris) An incredibly useful plant, common bamboo spreads quickly and densely to make an excellent tall evergreen screen. However, it readily becomes invasive as the roots keep running and running, disregarding property lines. Clumping species are a safer choice if you live near civilization.

Ribbon grass
Ribbongrass is a variegated ornamental grass that looks fresh and colorful in a pot but takes over most gardens quickly.
© George Weigel

10. Ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea) This variegated ornamental grass is one of the most attractive grasses in spring when the growth is fresh and clumps are contained by plastic pots. But like bamboo, the running roots overtake any garden quickly; dry, poor soil slows invasiveness. In hot, dry weather, the white-edged leaf blades may become toasty brown.

Better in the ground later:

1. Climbing hydrangea and Japanese hydrangea vine (Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris and Schizophragma hydrangeoides) These two woody, clinging vines are similar in habit. Both bear heart-shaped leaves and flat clusters of white or pink flowers in summer. They take about 3 years in the ground before they become established and bloom.

2. Leadwort or plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) This under-used groundcover fills in quickly without becoming invasive. Its purplish-blue flowers in late summer contrast with the leaves that turn blood red in fall. Potted plants appear almost empty in spring as young growth emerges late.

Japanese hydrangea vine Moonlight
Japanese hydrangea vine has heart-shaped leaves with burgundy tinges in spring and white flower clusters in early summer.
© George Weigel

3. Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia hybrids) Few tall shrubs/small trees are as showy in summer to late summer as this Southern staple. These leaf out and bloom too late for prime plant-shopping time, so garden centers often don't even bother carrying them until early summer.

4. Threadleaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) A U.S. native perennial, threadleaf bluestar plants are deceptively small in spring, prior to the pale baby blue flowers. By summertime 3-foot bushes develop with ferny, threadlike foliage that turns golden in fall.

5. Gloriosa daisy (Rudbeckia hirta) This short-lived perennial black-eyed Susan relative does not flower in time to look attractive for May plant sales. However when its brilliant golden blooms appear from July onward, gloriosa daisy becomes super-showy till frost.

6. Lilies (Lilium spp.) These summer-blooming bulbs are just poking up in May. The green stalks give little hint of the large, fragrant, trumpet-shaped flowers that will grace these plants in just a few more weeks. Best in moisture-retentive soil in sun or light shade.

Purple hyacinth bean
Purple hyacinth bean is an annual vine that’s just getting started at prime plant-buying time, but grows quickly to produce colorful pinkish-lavender flowers and glossy purple-burgundy pods.
© George Weigel

7. Purple hyacinth beans (Lablab purpureus) Looking for all the world like young lima bean plants in May, they are not attractive enough to catch the eyes of plant shoppers. But once this vining annual gets going, it grows like Jack’s beanstalk. With heart-shaped, maroon-veined leaves and trusses of lavender purple flowers, followed by shiny purple-burgundy pods, purple hyacinth beans provide unusual color the whole way until frost.

8. Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) Here’s another annual best started from seeds. Once up and growing, sunflowers produce thick stalks that can tower 6-8 feet tall, topped with gigantic flowerheads. They're very showy from mid-summer on; faded flowerheads are the source of sunflower seeds, beloved of seed-eating birds.

9. Cannas (Canna spp.) These upright, tropical plants emerge from underground tuberous roots. They display large, exotic-looking glossy leaves, and fleshy, fibrous stems that carry clusters of lily-like orange, red, pink or yellow flowers later in summer.

Plants may reach 6 feet tall.

10. Dwarf Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtuse 'Nana')

Dwarf Hinoki cypress
Dwarf Hinoki cypress is a slow-growing evergreen that seldom runs into any bug or disease problems.
© George Weigel

Probably the best soft-needled landscape evergreen you can buy, many people bypass dwarf Hinoki cypress because their price tag seems too high for their size. That’s because these are so slow-growing that the little 4-footer you see might have spent 8 or 10 years getting to that size in a greenhouse. In the landscape, they're trouble-free, compact and low-care. Slow can be a virtue.

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